Nutrition & Parenting: 6 Ways to Create a Healthy Feeding Relationship

Wednesday, October 4, 2006 - 2:15pm

By Erica Lesperance, RD, LD

From the moment a child is born, food serves as both nourishment and comfort. And parents are the ones who provide the food. From the beginning, children and parents are engaged in a feeding relationship. This relationship is an interactive process in which both parent and child participate. Like all relationships, things run smoothly at times, while at other times there are struggles. Struggles with feeding lead to parental anxiety about a child's eating habits, growth and nutrition. The resulting stress associated with feeding ultimately damages the feeding relationship.

What can you do to create a health eating relationship?

Obesity is on the rise in children and many experts believe that unhealthy feeding relationships are to blame. Eating disorders can also stem from a damaged relationship with food beginning as young as infancy. However, consciously fostering a healthy feeding environment from day one can prevent obesity and disordered eating, as well as have an enormously positive impact on how a child feels about himself. The following behaviors are important aspects of cultivating a healthy feeding relationship.

Breastfeeding beats bottles

Many moms become anxious when breast-feeding because they cannot see how much the baby is eating. Ironically, this is one of many reasons breast-feeding is the ideal feeding choice for infants. A breast-fed baby eats when he is hungry and stops sucking when he is full. Studies show that moms who bottle-feed often encourage the baby to finish his bottle, even when he is already full. Over time this causes him to ignore his signs of fullness and continue to eat. This interference of the natural, healthy feeding relationship can lead to binge eating and weight problems later in life.

Encourage children to eat with the family

 Children who eat with their family tend to make better choices and try new foods more readily than those who eat separately. As soon as your child starts on solid foods, include him in family mealtime. Even if you just give him a few cheerios, he can still be involved. Togetherness at mealtime enhances feelings of happiness around feeding, thus preserving the healthy feeding relationship.

Let children feed themselves

When your child starts reaching for the spoon with which you are feeding him, he wants to feed himself. Take this cue and let him. It will be messy and inefficient, but it is important to give him control over how much he eats as soon as possible. If he was breast-fed, he had that control before. Research has shown that children may eat up to 25% less when they serve themselves. This is not due to the amount of times they miss their mouth, but rather that they know how much they need to eat.

Offer children a variety of food from the start

The sooner you can get your child to eat and enjoy a variety of foods, the greater the likelihood that he will choose a more nutritious diet throughout life. Always offer a variety of foods for your child to choose from, making sure that at least one is a food you know he likes.

Avoid pressuring children to eat

Even if you are offering a variety of options at every meal, getting children to try new foods, especially fruits and vegetables, can be especially challenging. You may be tempted to bribe, scold, or reward your child to get him to try something new. Don't do it. Begging or forcing children to eat something will not meet the ultimate goal of getting them to make healthy choices in the future, and it will damage the feeding relationship. Simply continue to offer a variety of choices, allowing him to choose freely to eat or not eat each food. Do not show frustration when he does not choose a food you would like him to try. Just try again another time.

Making mealtimes relaxing and enjoyable

The feeding relationship revolves around mealtimes. Stress at mealtimes, whether caused by chaos around the house or arguments over trying new foods, puts this relationship at risk. Mealtime should be free from distractions such as television, radio, and phone calls. It is not a time for reprimanding and scolding for things that happened earlier in the day. Relax and enjoy the company of the family and use the time to converse and demonstrate appropriate eating behaviors and manners. This will help slow the pace of the meal, which is important because rushing through a meal leads to overeating.

Conclusion: developing a positive childhood food relationship is essential

Most adolescent and adult eating disorders, obsessive weight management efforts, and neurotic eating behaviors have their roots in early childhood feeding interactions. However, proper attention given to creating a healthy feeding relationship between you and your child can prevent this grim outcome. A positive feeding environment will not only influence the future food choices of children but will make them better adjusted individuals.

For further information on encouraging healthy eating habit in your children see the following articles from TheDietChannel: Cook With Your Children, Coping and Compromising With Picky Eaters, Healthy Breakfast Cereal and Your Kids and Getting Your Child To Eat Vegetables.